Belleville high school leaders hope a new mentoring program pairing successful African-American male students with incoming freshmen will inspire new students to perform their best on standardized tests, prioritize school work and excel academically.
"I feel like it's important to be successful," said Donnie Foster, a senior at Belleville West High School. "I'm proud of it."
The 18-year-old plays football, basketball and baseball, while maintaining a 3.3 GPA.
That's why he was asked by district officials to be a mentor to a freshman. He talked to his mother and decided it was a way to "maybe give back."
The mentor idea was born after Belleville Township High School District 201 Superintendent Jeff Dosier came on board last year.
"We actually have an achievement gap that's unfortunately pretty common around the country in standardized testing between white students and African-American students," Dosier said. "What we are trying to do is make a difference."
According to the 2012 Prairie State Achievement Exam scores, 64 percent of white students at both Belleville West and Belleville East high schools met or exceeded state minimum standards. However, only 27 percent of black students met those standards.
Dosier said he wants students to empower other students, to change an attitude some students have that test scores and good grades don't matter.
During the summer, about 80 juniors and seniors at both high schools were mailed letters asking them to serve as mentors. Those students met several requirements: They were African-American boys who had high GPAs, few discipline problems and were involved in sports and other extracurricular activities.
Donnie said he took on the challenge because he wanted to show incoming freshmen that they should not be afraid to be a successful student.
He was paired with Jacorey White-Jones, a 14-year-old who also plays basketball.
"I'm proud that I have somebody that can lead me in a good way, and encourage me," Jacorey said.
The pair have lunch at the same time, so they can talk or meet up, if Jacorey has a question or problem, they said. They've already looked at a website together that informs students about what classes are important to take in high school if they want to go to college.
"This mentoring thing is not about always breathing down his back," Donnie explained. "But he can always come to me."
Similarly, Darren Johnson, a 16-year-old junior at West, was paired up with freshman Nathaniel McCombs, 14. They have P.E. and lunch together. If they see each other in the hallway, they try to walk and talk together.
Darren plays football and is active in Harambee, an organization that promotes African-American history and encourages cultural diversity.
But as a student athlete, "school always comes first," he said. He has a 4.75 GPA, on a 4.0 scale, and thinks he might like to be an engineer someday.
He encouraged Nathaniel, and other freshmen, not to "mess around" when they're freshmen or they'll regret it when their GPA suffers for the next three years.
While many of the mentors top expectations in the classroom and on the playing field, Belleville West Associate Principal Richard Bass said he wants students to know that they can go to college even if they don't have athletic scholarships.
"There are other avenues besides athletics," Bass said. "Not all mentors are athletes."
The mentor program brought in guest speakers, successful black men, who encouraged the students to do their best academically. A couple of the speakers included Rev. Troy Benton, associate pastor at Christ Church in Fairview Heights, and Marvin Lampkin, a member of the District 201 Board of Education.
On Friday, students as part of the mentor program at East had a service project collecting hats, scarves and gloves. They planned to donate the supplies to the Violence Prevention Center.
Belleville East Principal Stephanie Posey described the scene recently when 30 freshmen boys at East met the 30 upperclassmen selected to be mentors: The older boys stood up, introduced themselves, and talked about their GPAs, what clubs and sports they're in and their plans for after high school.
The freshmen sat quietly, listening intently to each introduction.
"They look up to these guys so much, they're on their best behavior," Posey explained.
The hope is that the success of these students will influence younger ones, who may already struggle academically or behaviorally.
"(They'll) know it's OK to be that person, it's OK to get good grades," Posey said. "It's OK to be that good, positive person beyond campus."
Kendrick Settler, an 18-year-old senior at East, jumped at the chance to be a mentor.
"I just like helping people. I want to be a psychologist someday," he said.
The National Honor Society student played soccer, acts in the theater and is involved in the Spanish Club. He already has been accepted to college and is applying for scholarships.
Christian Thomas, a 15-year-old freshman at East, said meeting his mentor and talking about shared interests, like basketball and football, was cool.
"It was really like talking to my brother," he said.
Christian said high school is harder than middle school, but hopes that his mentor can show him how to study for future tests.
He also said, "it's fun walking around with upperclassmen."
James Cotton, 18, a senior at Belleville East, is a football and basketball star, but he also keeps a good GPA and is being recruited by several colleges. That list includes the University of Tennessee Martin, Southern Illinois University Carbondale, Southeast Missouri State University and Western Illinois University.
He talked about the freshman who he was paired up to mentor: "He's a cool guy," James said. "I don't even think he needs to be mentored."
Posey told James that he might be surprised by how some of these students struggle, or may be on the verge of struggling, with grades, behavior, attendance and more.
"I'll get on him," James said. "He's a good kid. He just needs to get on the ball ... If Ms. Posey thinks I can be that guy to help him, I'll be that guy."
Contact reporter Maria Hasenstab at email@example.com or 618-239-2460.